If you haven't done it, you're almost definitely lying to yourself. You're lying there (or standing there, I don't know your sex life), and all of a sudden, your mind... drifts, and lands on somebody other than the person you're currently with. It's hard not to feel guilty about it. Like, should you tell your partner you had someone else on your mind while they were going down on you? Does that count as some sort of weird emotional cheating?! Are you a MONSTER?!? Spoiler: No.
Thinking of someone else during sex is perfectly normal—a survey of 1,300 people by a British sex toy company found that 46 percent of women and 42 percent of men fantasize about someone else when having sex—yet it causes so much distress. To ease some of the confusion and unnecessary guilt, Dr. Dawn Michael—a clinical sexologist in California—offered some expertise about what constitutes normal, and what might be a sign that you and your partner need to have a chat.
Another tool in the orgasm toolbox
Michael reassured that not only is thinking of someone else during sex perfectly normal, it's something she even occasionally recommends in her practice. "Especially for men if they're having problems maintaining an erection, or if a woman is having a problem having an orgasm, it's ok to think of something else that turns you on," she said. That something could be a porn scene you recently watched, a professor you always had a crush on sophomore year of college, or maybe it's even someone you just saw a the grocery store. Whatever works.
Aside from a man struggling with something like erectile dysfunction or just a general lack of arousal in the moment (it happens to everyone), Michael said a common scenario for when a woman might think of someone else during sex is during oral sex. "Women often will come to me and say my guy's going down on me, and I'm getting nervous that it's taking too long," she said. They put pressure on themselves to just have the dang orgasm already, and there's nothing more difficult than having an orgasm if you're daring yourself to have it. Michael will often tell women in this situation to let their minds drift and land somewhere else, on something more relaxing—focus on the physical sensations of what's going on, but let your brain take a nice little hike.
It can also just be generally useful to think of someone else if you feel like you need to spice things up a little, or feel otherwise anxious about having sex. "When we are with someone for a while, it can get boring or someone can even have some type of sexual anxiety," Michael said. "Being able to tap into an erotic fantasy or think of someone else that arouses them can bring them back into the moment."
Where's the line?
Even if it's normal and fine, Michael warned that thinking of one particular person (like an ex), or thinking of someone else *every* time you have sex is probably a sign of a deeper issue. Like, it's one thing to fantasize occasionally about strangers you've seen out in public, but it's another to have a recurring fantasy—during actual sex—that your ex is there with you instead of your current partner. Feeling an emotional attachment to whoever you're thinking of can get tricky, and probably should signal a larger discussion with your current partner.
It also becomes a problem if you start feeling emotionally distant during sex by using the fantasy as a way to escape rather than enhance your current experience.
You know how sometimes you can look at someone across a room and tell that they're lost somewhere in a daydream? They look kind of spaced out and otherwise vacant? That's not a look you particularly want to see in your partner, in the middle of what's supposed to be a shared intimate experience.
When (and how) to tell your partner
Michael said this isn't something you necessarily need to disclose to your partner. But, like she said, if this is a recurring thing, or you find that you can't orgasm or stay aroused without thinking of someone else, you should probably "examine the relationship." You should be turned on by your partner in general, but it's okay to occasionally use a fantasy to push you over the edge, so to speak.
If you do feel you should tell your partner, do it gently. Treat it like you're telling them about any other sexual fantasy you might have. "You always want to make sure you're not making the other person feel bad," Michael said. "Say, sometimes I will think about this because it adds to the sexual excitement."
Or if you're on the other side of this, and feel the distance between you and your partner and think it may have something to do with some far off fantasy land they're in during sex, be careful about the way you approach the topic. The thing about sexual fantasies is that they're deeply personal.
Don't come at this from a place of trying to shame your partner or make them feel guilty—phrase it in terms of how much you care about the relationship, and care about your shared pleasure.
"I would say, I'm noticing that maybe we're not connecting," Michael said. "You want to use an 'I' perspective, instead of scolding the person."
None of this is anything to feel guilty about. And if you aren't doing it all the time, and aren't consistently imagining someone you have an emotional attachment to, you have nothing to worry about. You know yourself. If it seems significant that you're thinking of someone else during sex, maybe ask yourself why. Otherwise, enjoy the fantasies for what they are—purely just fantasies.
"The reality is we're all entitled to our thoughts, it's not really for someone else to say what's right or wrong," Michael said. "
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.